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The Seuss controversy isn’t ‘cancel culture.’ It’s about recognizing changing attitudes

Dr. Seuss children's books "If I Ran the Zoo," "And To Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street," "On Beyond Zebra!," and "McElligot's Pool" are among the six that will no longer be published.
Dr. Seuss children's books "If I Ran the Zoo," "And To Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street," "On Beyond Zebra!," and "McElligot's Pool" are among the six that will no longer be published.Christopher Dolan/Associated Press

No, they’re not canceling Dr. Seuss. But a lot of people want you to think so. It’s worth thinking about why that is.

News bulletin: You can still get a hold of the six early titles that Dr. Seuss Enterprises has chosen to cease publishing anytime you want to. They’re in libraries and used bookstores; they’re on eBay and Alibris and Amazon. No one’s destroying any copies; they’re just not printing any new ones. After a period of study and consultation with outside experts, the company decided that the six titles contained racially insensitive images – mostly depictions of Chinese, Arab, and African people that were, according to a statement, “hurtful and wrong.”

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There have been no public calls for boycotts, no protests in the streets. It’s a corporate decision that Dr. Seuss Enterprises has every right to make. And, honestly, it’s likely the good Dr. – Theodor Geisel in real life – would be down with that. Before his death in 1991, he expressed regret to biographers over the virulently anti-Japanese political cartoons he had drawn during World War II; a great-nephew told the New York Times in 2017 that “later in his life he was not proud of those at all.” Geisel also evolved over the course of his long career from commercial and editorial work that leaned on then-common racist tropes and imagery to classic books that criticized racism (“The Sneetches”), authoritarianism (“Yertle the Turtle”), isolationism (“Horton Hears a Who,” which Geisel dedicated to “my great friend, Mitsugi Nakamura of Kyoto, Japan”), and the arms race (”The Butter Battle Book”).

Theodor Geisel, Dr. Seuss, in 1987.
Theodor Geisel, Dr. Seuss, in 1987.Associated Press

In the context of his times, Dr. Seuss was a classic mid-20th-century liberal – and also a member of a race, a country, and a culture that assumed they were the norm and all other people were caricatured variations on the norm. (He was a Dartmouth man, and as one myself, I know that a good amount of entitlement comes with those four long years in the white north woods. Especially in the 1920s.) Geisel seems to have grown at least partly out of many of those assumptions over the course of his life, which is to his credit.

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What too many people have never understood – and that certainly goes for Hollywood producers – is that Dr. Seuss was always more than a kiddie-book author. To my lights, he’s one of the great nonsense poets, up there with Lewis Carroll, Edward Lear, and Ogden Nash. More important, he inculcated children with delight, delighted terror (those pants with nobody inside ‘em!), and hidden moral lessons on how to be a kinder, more thoughtful, more engaged human being (not to mention a sillier one). Images that limit kids’ view of other people in books that are 80 years old – well, that shouldn’t be part of the plan.

Anyway, if you think “How I Ran the Zoo” is bad, wait until you see the original 1931 version of Hergé's “Tintin in the Congo,” with its big-lipped Africans, colonial messaging, and outre animal cruelty. (The artist later described it as “a sin from my youth.”) But that’s only available in a special hardbound collector’s edition separate from the regular “Tintin” stories published by Casterman. Meaning it’s aimed away from children and toward a market of fans, completists, scholars, and racist apologists for the rule of King Leopold of Belgium. That’s as it should be. (The redrawn 1946 version of “Congo” still has issues, though; just saying.)

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Hergé in 1959.
Hergé in 1959.-/AFP via Getty Images

And you probably don’t want to know that the original Oompa-Loompas in Roald Dahl’s 1964 “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” were written and drawn as African pygmies who were, uh, “imported” by Willy Wonka to work at his factory. The NAACP, among others, objected, and, in Dahl’s own words, “after listening to the criticisms, I found myself sympathizing with them,” and rewrote the Oompa-Loompas as “dwarfish hippies” for the 1973 second edition.

No one squawked then because there wasn’t a 24-7 news cycle and social media infrastructure that depends on daily booster shots of outrage to generate traffic and profits. The announcement by Dr. Seuss Enterprises was a godsend for Fox News, talking heads like Tucker Carlson, and the mad-as-hell conservative Twittersphere (not to mention armchair commenters in papers like this one). The move represents at least a week’s worth of ginned-up fury at a culture that is moving carefully and with forethought and with a fair amount of missteps along the way to a world more welcoming to people unlike them.

They bay at the moon about “cancel culture,” because it gets them eyeballs and advertisers. But there is no such thing as cancel culture. No one’s burning books or even banning them. (For the record, it was widely reported last year that eight of the ten most-banned books in school libraries feature LGBTQ+ content, and I don’t think it’s the left that’s up in arms about those.)

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What there is is accountability, and conversations – sometimes heated – and necessary reckonings with the past, including reckonings that may be uncomfortable. The world moves on and grows bigger, and artifacts get left behind, even ones you may have loved since childhood. Maybe you’re resisting losing those artifacts because you assimilated them as harmless long ago and can’t understand why others might feel differently – might want to see themselves in a classic children’s book as something more than a buck-toothed caricature.

Maybe there’s a Dr. Seuss lesson right there for the taking.


Ty Burr can be reached at ty.burr@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.